A walk on the wild side; time to rethink our approach to grass verges?

Charlie Heasman, June 16th 2019

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I set out to write about bumblebees and have veered off topic before even writing a word so this will be a post in two parts.  The bees will come later, and there is a connection, but for now let’s think about the grass.

We have an obsession with lawns, lawnmowers and keeping grass cut.  By cut we mean short, the shorter the better.  Skinned in fact.  A uniform verdant green is what is to be earnestly desired and imperfections of any kind, especially weeds, will not be tolerated.  For many of us even so much as a daisy with the temerity to pop up is a bridge too far.  Out with the lawnmower, reach for the spray, apply lawn conditioner.  A natural look?  Not in my backyard!

But why?  No, really, why?

It is not as if in so doing we are bringing a natural look to our gardens; quite the opposite.  What we are doing is overcoming nature, bringing a bland homogenised look to the ground we own and walk on.

What’s more it’s costly.  Costly in terms of labour, costly in terms of weedkillers and additives.  And perhaps there’s the answer.

We live in a world where we judge the value of things not by their worth but their price.  The more it costs the more we want it.  An expensively manicured lawn is just that: expensive.  It proclaims to the world that the owner has money; come to that it proclaims to the owner that the owner has money.  There is nothing new about this.

Go back a few hundred years and look at the great estates of Britain and Europe.  Palatial stately homes were designed and built to shout one thing: ‘look at me, I have money’.  Once the house was built the grounds had to be landscaped and vast lawns established.  These swathes of land sent out the same message: ‘I have so much money that I don’t need to use the land, I can do with it what I please’.

It cost money too, a lot of money.  This was before the advent of the lawnmower and maintenance would have had to be done entirely by hand.  A scythe was the weapon of choice and cutting grass tight and keeping it that way with a scythe was hugely laborious. A mansion was a status symbol; a mansion with a well manicured lawn doubly so.  Lawns were the preserve of the rich; no-one else could afford one.

Then in 1830 a resident in the small village of Thrupp, just outside Stroud in Gloucestershire, did something to change all that.  He invented the lawnmower.

This not only saved the rich a considerable amount of money, it also meant that the newly emerged Victorian middle class of the Industrial Revolution could now afford a lawn too; albeit a rather more modest sized one.  And afford it they did, each pocket sized patch of carefully shorn green proclaimed the wealth and upward mobility of the owners behind the front door.  The invention of the lawnmower revolutionised the suburban landscape and helped make it what it is today, our vanity and our desire to show off remain unchanged.

Our forbears emulated their betters and we ape our forebears without even knowing we’re doing it.  That is how we’ve ended up with our present mindset.

Now, I can’t tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t do in their garden and have no wish to do so, anymore than I would feel compelled to dictate the colour of their wallpaper.  I’m simply inviting people here to ask themselves why short grass is so important to them.

 

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Grass verges are another matter entirely, they are not status symbols and if we can get away from the ‘shorn like a sheep’ mentality we can perhaps find a better use for them.

Howls of anguish already: “they must be kept neat”, “we don’t want our town looking scruffy”, “we can’t have weeds growing along our roads”, etc, etc.

Point taken, but can we at least compromise?  If we were to look at things through slightly different eyes would we even be compromising at all?

I believe Fingal CC have got the balance somewhere near right on the railway side of the newly named Barnegeera Road.

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A strip along the kerb is mowed; the rest left (so far this year at least) to nature.  This inconveniences absolutely no-one, saves fuel and taxpayer’s money and benefits wildlife.  A win win situation.

Personally I’d like to see the mowed strip narrower and the wild part wider but we’re working along the right lines here.  Do I think it looks untidy?  No I don’t.  Do you?

Crossing to the other side of the road, and going back to our first picture, we have a different story.

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Fingal, like so many Councils, are in the habit of spraying round the base of trees; these poppies are probably doomed.  Why do it?

What is so harmful about a tiny patch of wildlife that it must be exterminated?  Far less harmful than the sprays that do the job.

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Let us move to another part of Skerries and to the bees that were originally supposed to be the subject of this blog.

We are going to the South Strand.

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We have parked up, got out of our car and are walking across the neatly mown grass.

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But what happens when we reach the unmown part?

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This is what happens.

This part could be mown, but it’s not.

It gets better…

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Nature imitating art: a Renaissance painting if ever there was one.

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This strip of land is left to its own devices, it grows what wants to grow on it and people can enjoy it.  Access is in no way restricted, one can walk alongside it, across it, or through it.  What’s more, so can insects.  And bees, which is why we were here yesterday.

Bumblebees, as we all know, are in decline.  So are a whole host of other pollinating insects.  At this rate it will not be long before we are all in trouble ourselves, we need to reverse the trend, and urgently.

The problem is that in order to fix a problem it is necessary to know as much about said problem as possible, and that is not always easy.  How much have bumblebees declined?  How many were there before?  What do we actually mean by before?  Before what and when exactly?  How many are there left now?

Fortunately there has been a monitoring scheme in place in Ireland for ten years now so at least we have an idea how many there were then; before that is only guesswork but it doesn’t take a lot of guessing to say that it would have been considerably more.

Unfortunately the results of ten years study has shown a steep decline with several species now endangered.

The public, you, me and anyone else can help here by monitoring a local area and submitting records of sightings to the National Biodiversity Database.  Skerries has a newly formed group of bumblebee watchers doing just that and they’ve actually managed to come up with some good news for a change.

One of the members came across what he was pretty sure, but couldn’t quite believe, was four queens of the same species feeding on the same plant.  Seeking confirmation, a photo was duly sent and the answer came back.  Not only were they indeed queens but they were of a species (Bombus muscorum) in the close to endangered rating.  They had not been previously recorded in Skerries.

That sighting was in the Ballast Pit one week ago.  Marion and myself thought it might be worth a look on the South Strand and that is what has brought us all here now.

We were amazed when we set to work just how many bees were here, in places so many it was difficult to count at all.  We encountered five different species, pretty normal for any one site.

 

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B lapidarious Photo: Tom O’Reilly, Drogheda

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Note the full pollen sacs. Tom O’Reilly again

 

We were only about 15 mins in when we found what we.d hoped to see: a Bombus Muscorum, and a queen at that, feeding on Red Valarian.

Out came the trusty iphone and photographic evidence obtained.  Unfortunately I’m a lousy photographer, especially when it comes to bees which tend to be incooperatively mobile, and I’d be ashamed to show that picture here.

Our luck changed in this respect a little later when,having found plenty more of the same species, a guy with a decent looking camera asked us what we were doing.  We told him and he was pretty interested, being an amateur beekeeper himself as it turned out, so he started clicking away.  The results are these photos.

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B muscorum worker. Photo: Tom O’Reilly

 

We were able to lead him to a muscorum queen and here she is:

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All in all a successful day.  When we got home we tallied our counts and found that, by our results at least, the semi endangered muscorum actually makes up 6% of the bumblebee population of the South Strand.  An important and surprising result given that it was first recorded in Skerries only one week previously.

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To conclude:

The South Strand is a small but important conservation area but you have to look closely to appreciate its full value.  No-one has to maintain it; simply leave it alone and let nature do what nature does.  The same can be said of the Ballast Pit and other odd corners around the town.

But what if we had more?

What if we can overcome our fixation with mowing and our fear of long grass?  Could we not rewild odd corners of the green spaces like this through the town?

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Or this:

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At present these are little more than green deserts, it would cost little or nothing to change this.  Leave the actual playing fields of course; they serve a purpose; concentrate on the margins and corners and all pollinators would benefit.  So would we in the long run.  Big time. 

Now imagine if every town in the Country did the same.

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